This Time Capsule Was Hidden In A Virginia Cemetery, And It’s Full Of Startling Secrets

At a table inside Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery, a conservator nervously eyes up a metal box. For more than 100 years, this time capsule has sat within the walls of the Memorial Amphitheater, keeping its secrets as the country around it changed and grew. But now it is time to reveal its contents to the world.

Today the amphitheater serves as the focal point for America’s great remembrance services, hosting everything from private funerals to president’s speeches. And over the years thousands of people have filed through its marble arches and columns to stand solemnly in the great courtyard and pay their respects. All the while, though, a different kind of memorial has been hiding in plain sight.

When construction on the building began in 1915, officials decided to leave something behind for future generations to discover. And so they filled a box with memories and stashed it inside the cornerstone. More than a hundred years later, during the amphitheater’s centennial celebrations, this treasure trove was finally unearthed.

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On April 9, 2020, a team of specialists gathered at Arlington to open the time capsule. And slowly, one at a time, a series of historic relics began to emerge. These fascinating artifacts paint a picture of American life in 1915 – a time when the nation was on the cusp of transformation.

Located on the other side of the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., Arlington National Cemetery is known as the largest military burial ground in the United States. And its story began during the early years of the 19th century, when George Washington’s adoptive son, George Washington Parke Custis, took possession of a swathe of land outside the nation’s capital.

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There Custis built a grand manor and named it Arlington after the English village where his ancestors had lived. And when he died in 1857, his daughter Mary Anna inherited the estate, living there with her husband, the army officer Robert E. Lee. But they hadn’t been in the property for long before political turmoil threatened to tear the country apart.

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In 1861 the American Civil War broke out, and Virginia established itself as a Confederate state. Resigning his position, Lee threw his lot in with the rebels, eventually becoming the leader of the Army of Northern Virginia. And before long, Arlington had filled up with soldiers keen to bring about the Union’s defeat.

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Across the river in Washington, meanwhile, General Winfield Scott began to grow uneasy about the presence of a Confederate stronghold so close to the city. Fearing that federal forces would seize her ancestral property, Mary Ann abandoned Arlington and fled further into Virginia. Sure enough, on May 24, 1861, Union troops occupied the estate.

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As the Civil War continued, bodies on both sides of the conflict began to pile up. And by 1863 the graveyards of Washington and Virginia were beginning to run out of room. Tasked with locating a suitable alternative, the U.S. government settled on the Arlington Estate. Being located on high ground with views across the city, it was a practical choice – but that wasn’t its only appeal.

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By then Lee was the commander of the Confederate Army, and the idea of taking back his home must have seemed too tempting to ignore. After all Union forces had seized Arlington, with the first military burial taking place in May 1864. Later, Lee’s heir would successfully campaign to have the estate returned to his family, although he eventually sold it back to the government in 1883.

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Today Arlington houses around 400,000 graves across its 640 acres, including the burial plots of presidents John F. Kennedy and William Taft. But perhaps its most famous landmark is the Memorial Amphitheater, a vast, Grecian-style building located near the center of the sprawling cemetery. And like the headstones around it, this structure also has a fascinating story to tell.

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When the Civil War ended and America began to heal, Arlington found itself at the center of a national outpouring of grief. And as the crowds attending the cemetery continued to grow, officials built a wooden amphitheater to accommodate them. By 1900, though, it had become clear that a larger space was needed.

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At this point, Civil War veteran Judge Ivory Kimball came into the picture. Believing that Arlington needed a larger, grander building that would commemorate all fallen American soldiers, he launched a campaign for a new amphitheater. But it was not until March 1913 that President Taft approved the proposal as one of his last acts in office.

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In March 1915 construction work began on Arlington’s new Memorial Amphitheater. And seven months later, Taft’s successor President Woodrow Wilson helped to lay the building’s cornerstone. But this was no ordinary piece of foundation. Instead of a solid piece of rock, it was hollow – and a secret was hidden inside.

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To mark the momentous occasion, officials had decided to place a time capsule, encased in metal, within the cornerstone. But what was inside? In the end, the container, known as a memorabilia box, would remain sealed for more than 100 years. And as it sat quietly within the walls of the Memorial Amphitheater, its story would take a number of unexpected twists.

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Initially planners hoped that the building would be completed as early as 1917. But as construction progressed, it became clear that the quality marble needed for the Grecian design would be difficult to source. Then in April, 1917 the United States entered World War I, and more working men left the country to fight.

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So without a suitable workforce available, the construction suffered further delays. Eventually, though, the Memorial Amphitheater was officially dedicated on May 15, 1920. And 100 years later, as part of the building’s centennial celebrations, the cornerstone was pried open, revealing the time capsule within.

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In reality the artifacts had not exactly lain undisturbed for 105 years. Because in 1974 a new staircase was built on the eastern side of the amphitheater, covering the original site of the cornerstone. Thus the time capsule had to be removed and taken to the National Archives in Washington for safekeeping.

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Then in 1976 the capsule made its way back to Arlington. But it was not until the 1990s that it was reinstalled, placed inside another cornerstone within the amphitheater’s walls. By the time that the centennial came around, then, the mysterious box had already undergone quite a journey – but the story was far from over.

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As the centennial approached, it was decided to open the time capsule once and for all. And on April 9, 2020, a small team gathered to extract it from its hiding place. After spending hours chiseling away at the marble facade, workers were able to pry off the front of the cornerstone.

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And inside, just as the team had suspected, sat the rusted copper box first hidden in the amphitheater 105 years ago. But that wasn’t all. As it turned out, workers laying the new cornerstone in the 1990s had decided to add their own footnote to history in the form of an old peanut butter jar.

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Plus the workers had stashed a collection of handwritten notes and business cards, their own attempt at a time capsule of sorts. Speaking to the Washington Post in 2020 Caitlin Smith, a conservator based at Arlington, explained, “It was sort of a rushed job. But you can understand the impulse to add your name to history.”

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The real star of the show, though, was the copper box first placed inside the cornerstone in 1915. In order to safely open the capsule and reveal its contents, a team of conservators, historians and maintenance workers retreated to a secure space within the amphitheater’s chapel. And there, using specialist tools, they got to work.

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First, the team drilled a small hole in a corner of the copper box and used a scope to look inside. But that didn’t actually reveal the artifacts that were placed inside more than 100 years ago. Within the external container, it seemed, there was another, smaller capsule made of copper, which was shielded by a layer of glass.

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According to the Arlington Cemetery, this design was to prevent condensation from damaging the contents of the time capsule. But for the experts tasked with opening up the box, it must have added another level of difficulty to the operation. Ultimately, though, Smith sliced off the lid of the outer box, revealing the smaller container within.

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The team proceeded to open up a corner of the box and peered inside. This time, though, they were not disappointed. There, hidden beneath a layer of copper, was a stash of historical artifacts in excellent condition. Having removed the lid from the capsule, Smith handed over to Tim Frank, a historian based at Arlington.

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“I tried to keep my nerves under wraps,” Smith told the Washington Post. “I tried to be a good steady hand… We didn’t know obviously what condition things would be in… You never know if there’s going to be a surprise.” All in all, it took the team two-and-a-half hours to open up the time capsule.

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As Frank removed the items one by one, the assembled team were treated to a glimpse of American life towards the beginning of the 20th century. So what was inside? Among the collection were artifacts and documents that captured the world of 1915, as well as items of a broader historical significance.

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At one point, for example, Frank withdrew copies of both the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence from the capsule. And because the box was sealed in 1915, the former only went as far as the 17th Amendment, missing out a number of historic laws that would later come to pass.

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Another item of interest was an American flag, confusingly marked with just 46 stars. Of course, these are supposed to represent the states – but in 1915 there should have been 48. In a 2020 statement from the National Archives, David S. Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, speculated on the story behind this strange occurrence.

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“The inclusion of an American flag is kind of standard in these kinds of memorabilia boxes, and the interesting thing about this flag is the date, of course,” Ferriero said. “This was done in 1915, and the flag here is 46 stars when there were actually 48 states in 1915. I would guess, having been involved in situations like this, is that they grabbed whatever [was] available and this [became] the flag in the memorabilia box.”

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Alongside the flag and documents, Frank uncovered a collection of coins, including one of each denomination. And as well as currency there were a number of stamps that had never been in circulation, featuring images of American icons Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. But there was also a grim side of history included as well.

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Inside the time capsule, the team found a Civil War-era pamphlet labeled “Confederate Dead.” According to Steve Carney, another Arlington historian, the document contained a list of burial locations in the Washington area where Confederate soldiers had been laid to rest. Since it had been written, though, many of the soldiers had been re-interred in the very cemetery where the time capsule was unearthed.

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By the time that the capsule was buried, it seems, Arlington had become something of a symbol, housing both Union and Confederate graves. But there is of course little doubt that this is a relic of a united America. Nestled next to the documents, stamps and coins sat a signed photograph of President Wilson, who had been in office for two years by March 1915.

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Plus the capsule contained a map showing the original designs for Washington laid out by the French-American engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant. And alongside these were four newspapers from the city, each dated October 12, 1915. But, like a true archivist, Ferriero was almost more enthralled with the bindings that came with the documents, than the documents themselves.

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“All of the records in the National Archives, when they were moved into that building, were carefully protected with wrappings that were held together with this red tape,” Ferriero told National Archives News. “This is where the saying comes [from] about cutting through the red tape. It is actually – literally – the red tape.”

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Yet Frank was intrigued by one particular artifact: a directory of those living in the District of Columbia in 1915. According to the Arlington Cemetery website, the historian knew that his family had roots in the city going back generations. And sure enough, when he carefully flipped through the pages, he found a listing for his great-grandfather, Robert.

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For people like Frank and Smith, the opening of the time capsule has provided an invaluable experience. Speaking to the Washington Post, the conservator explained, “It was meant to be opened. That’s why we put time capsules in place, for future generations to remember us by. We hope we’ve done something significant enough that it will be remembered… and we won’t be forgotten.”

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And as Carney pointed out, the capsule shows just how much things can change in a relatively short period of time. He said, “Within three years, the United States is a completely different place. We’ve seen the horrors of World War I, and we’re in the midst of the Spanish influenza… What a different place and what a different memorabilia box that would have been if it was placed in 1920, when the amphitheater was dedicated.”

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Having caught a glimpse of the past, the team at Arlington are looking towards the future. And according to the statement, plans are in place to install a new time capsule – this time to be kept sealed until 2120. But what artifacts will find their way inside? And what world will be awaiting them 100 years from now?

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